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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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News of the Bodleian's plans to digitise the First Folio are to be welcomed, but several passages in this article made me question the purpose of indefinite preservation of this object... especially once that digitisation is complete.

First off, there's the resources question. Consider a parallel to the outspoken view of Chris Packham on the conservation of pandas:

I don't want the panda to die out. I want species to stay alive – that's why I get up in the morning. I don't even kill mosquitoes or flies. So if pandas can survive, that would be great. But let's face it: conservation, both nationally and globally, has a limited amount of resources, and I think we're going to have to make some hard, pragmatic choices.

The truth is, pandas are extraordinarily expensive to keep going. We spend millions and millions of pounds on pretty much this one species, and a few others, when we know that the best thing we could do would be to look after the world's biodiversity hotspots with greater care. Without habitat, you've got nothing. So maybe if we took all the cash we spend on pandas and just bought rainforest with it, we might be doing a better job.

Of course, it's easier to raise money for something fluffy. Charismatic megafauna like the panda do appeal to people's emotional side, and attract a lot of public attention. They are emblematic of what I would call single-species conservation: ie a focus on one animal. This approach began in the 1970s with Save the Tiger, Save the Panda, Save the Whale, and so on, and it is now out of date. I think pandas have had a valuable role in raising the profile of conservation, but perhaps "had" is the right word.

In this case, we place a very high social value on the item in question. Around 40 copies of the First Folio survive and it provides the means by which scholars can assess the transmission (and problems with transmission) of Shakespeare's plays. Other aspects of scholarly interest regarding the Folio range to the type of paper used, the degree to which each play has been read (measured by disintegration/condition of the paper) and other material aspects of the history of the book. However, who exactly gets to study this object?

From the Guardian article:

Hurst feels very twitchy when the volume is out of the building in the conservation studio.

Permission is occasionally given to scholars who really need to use it, but it was the inspiration of Emma Smith, of the English department, who itched to get her hands on it, to get it digitised and available for the first time to the world.

Every page has to be photographed in the highest possible resolution, and the challenge for the conservators is to stabilise the book so that it does not disintegrate in the process - but without destroying any of the historically fascinating damage, or the heroic efforts of one 18th century owner to carry out homemade repairs.

This is a book that is so unstable that the head of conservation gets twitchy when the item is used in any way and needs to be stabilised so that it can be digitised. Here's the other interesting line:

"Usually when a book comes to us the object would be to restore it to a condition when it could be given out to readers again, but that is never going to be possible, or desirable, with this book," Nicole Gilroy, the team leader, said.

Yep, it is not even "desirable", even if it were physically possible, to allow people to read objects of this rarity. I understand the concern, but that is unfortunate phrasing. it's also worth pointing out that digitised editions of the First Folio already exist.

What I'm driving at here is the paradox of aura and the impossible object: this object is revered, supposedly for the historical insights that we can glean from it, but locked away so that nobody can obtain such insights. The darkest of archives, it seems, has a theological, reverential component to it. Hence, for democratic purposes, a digitized version of the Folio seems like a very good plan. Is, however, there such very great value in the continued, expensive, preservation of the volume after this? Theoretically, new technologies could allow for ever greater insights (DNA testing?) but is the price of preservation proportional to the insights as the access to the item is continually narrowed? When, finally, only a single person is allowed access, but we are all told to pay for its preservation, amid limited resources, are we like the man on his deathbed who, when asked why he isn't eating replies: "I'm saving it for later".